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Pro-Voices: Overcoming Adversity—Lessons Learned from One “Life” to Another

Sue Watt

I feel like I’ve lived two lives in one because half of my life is so vastly different from the other.

From an early age, I knew I wanted to be a ballet dancer. Like many young girls, my parents put me in ballet classes at the age of four. I’m not sure what made me decide that ballet was the career for me, but I do remember a feeling of freedom and happiness every time I entered the studio. As soon as I turned 10, I auditioned, and was accepted into, a professional training school in Perth, Australia where I’m originally from.

My goal was to be a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theater in New York. Why New York? Perth is considered the most isolated major city in the world—the closest city being 1,307 miles away—and I knew if I wanted to be the best of the best, I had to leave the comforts of my home.

Starting professional training at age 10, I think it gave me a better understanding of, and more regular experience, with heartbreak, hard work and “failure” than your average kid or teenager.

I was lucky enough to be accepted into an Arts high school that allowed me to take four classes to obtain my high school diploma, giving me the rest of the time to dedicate to training. Training included: classical, contemporary, Spanish dance, music theory, strengthening and conditioning, and history classes, as well as track and physical therapy sessions.

I was training three-to-four times-a-day, 6-7-days a week. Because of this, I didn’t get to do many of the regular activities that kids participate in. Training consumed my life and I was okay with that because I loved it. Things were going well for me during the first few years. I was even awarded a scholarship in my third year. But then, I had my first real injury.

I was 14 when I had surgery on my left ankle. It was also my first year on scholarship and I stressed about how I was going to keep it if I couldn’t keep my grades up. My surgeon assured me that in three-months’ time, I’d be back to 100%. I wasn’t. Instead, it took 14-months.

It was at the four-month mark where I had no choice but to start training again or lose my scholarship. This was against the advice of my physical therapist and surgeon.

But then, nine-months after my ankle surgery, I injured my left hip. While still in rehab for my ankle, I underwent hip surgery. More time off from training, more pain and more frustration. Unfortunately, the amount of time I had taken off from training and my inability to train properly for almost a year resulted in me losing my scholarship.

I spent the following year in intense strengthening and conditioning sessions to see if my ankle and hip would regain their full strength and mobility back—neither of them did. Eventually, I was forced to accept that I would have to do something else with my life.

Coming to terms with how things played out took years. Even after I stopped training at 18, I still felt the effects of years of intense training on my body. With two surgeries permanently weakening two left leg joints in about the same time period, my left knee took a lot of the impact and I ended up having knee surgery when I was 21.

I felt defeated at this point. But, I had a close family friend tell me: “That single-lane focus you have, dedication and determination to give 110% every day no matter how you’re feeling, and courage to love something wholeheartedly and keep fighting with all those setbacks, these qualities will serve you well, no matter what you choose to do now.”

It took me a while to fully comprehend what this person told me. But, I gradually came to realize that just because I spent my life dedicated to the one thing I loved and for it to not work out, it didn’t make it a waste of time—it did in fact mean something despite how things turned out.

I can strongly say that without everything I went through in my “first life,” I wouldn’t be where I am today. Even though the experience left me disappointed and upset for a very long time, I wouldn’t have it any other way—it taught me so much. The immense focus and discipline that was required of me for training taught me how to work hard effectively, be resilient, persevere and not let defeat get the better of me.

It conditioned me to do the same little mundane things over and over again because I understood that doing those things over long periods of time produced results. I was conditioned to suffer through pain, work long hours, and not necessarily have anything good happen immediately. I knew I had to be patient and diligent.

And more importantly, you can’t always plan your life out—sometimes you need to go with the flow, work with the circumstances that have played out, and embrace the unexpected because sometimes that can be the best thing to ever happen to you.

I may have put all my eggs in one basket so many years ago, but using the skills I learned, qualities that transformed within me, and the highs and lows that I was blessed to have experienced through ballet training, there was one aspect of my dream that I knew I could still make happen—living and working in New York— going from the most isolated city in the world to the busiest. And, here I am. 

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